Linguistic Gender Crossing

Cross Gender

Last week we discussed the rhetorical figure of chiasmus in detail; however, seeing as the somewhat complicated-sounding term means nothing more than a “crossing” (like the shape of the Greek letter chi), it is often used as well to describe what happens when linguistic genders get crossed.

For those with an interest in language, linguistic gender crossing is every bit as titillating as cross dressing and sex changes. The first type of gender crossing is called chiastic agreement, a special type of agreement between a noun and its qualifiers. A qualifier is any word which specifies characteristics of a noun, such as adjectives, adverbs and possessives. So in the noun phrase “seven new red cars”, new and red are both qualifiers. The number seven, on the other hand, is a quantifier. Agreement between a noun and its qualifiers means that if a noun is feminine and singular, its qualifiers will be feminine and singular as well. So in Spanish we have “siete nuevos coches rojos” but “siete nuevas bicicletas rojas”; coches (car) is masculine and plural, so “new” and “red” are nuevos and rojos, while the feminine bicicletas are accompanied by nuevas and rojas.

Notice that the quantifier – siete – is invariable. Obviously the number seven will always be plural, but, as with all quantifiers in Spanish and most other languages, it has no gender. This is not the case in Arabic, where quantifiers in fact express agreement with the noun which they enumerate; i.e. they will be feminine if the noun is feminine and masculine if it is masculine.

However, the numbers 3 to 10 in Arabic show chiastic agreement, which means that the genders are swapped. So in the Quranic verse في ستة أيام (God created the world in 6 days), the masculine plural noun أيام (days) is qualified by the feminine number ستة (six). If the period had been six years we would have seen six written as ست, which is its masculine version, in chiastic agreement with the feminine word عام (year). All other numbers show normal, homogender agreement.

Although numbers are genderless quantifiers in most other languages, there is one Romance language in which the gender of numerical quantities can be slightly confusing. In Italian, on top of the difficulty of identifying the gender of a noun, one must also learn to recognize those nouns which undergo the equivalent of a sex change when they pass from the singular to the plural.

Two of the words which change gender when pluralized refer to numerical quantities: the masculine singular nouns il centinaio (a group of one hundred) and il migliaio (a group of one thousand) become the feminine plurals le centinaia and le miglia.

Many of the Italian nouns which undergo a similar gender change refer to parts of the body; we have il braccio (the arm, m.) but le braccia (the arms, f.), il ginocchio (the knee, m.) but le ginocchia (the knees, f.), il labbro (the lip, m.) but le labbra (the lips, f.), and l’orecchio (the ear, m.) but le orecchie (the ears, f.). Head, shoulders, knees and toes (testa, spalle, ginocchia e piedi) is all that more difficult to remember in Italian.

All of this probably sounds confusing – nice-looking rules inevitably have exceptions. Remember – grammar, in our own language as well as foreign languages, is a descriptive, not a prescriptive science. To learn to speak Arabic and Italian correctly you not only have to learn your genders; you have to learn when to cross them!


Gender in the Romance Languages

man and woman gender

Last week we saw how Ernest Hemingway addressed the interpretative possibilities of linguistic gender in his seminal novel The Old Man and the Sea. As Hemingway showed, identifying the gender of nouns is not always a straightforward task in Spanish, and the same can be said for the other Romance languages as well.

In most Romance languages the masculine or feminine gender of a noun may be denoted by the article which precedes it, be it the definite article (“the sea” may be el mar or la mar) or the indefinite article (“a cat” may be un gato or una gata). In Romanian the definite article is added at the end of the word, so while “a man” is un om and “a woman” is o femeie, “the man” is omul, and “the woman” is femeia. Considering that Romanian also has a neuter gender, it should be clear that its grammar is remarkably different from that of its Western cousins. We’ll limit today’s discussion to Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.

A further distinction can be made between Spanish, Portuguese and Italian on the one hand and French on the other. Gender is often reflected in the ending of the noun, as shown in the example of the cat (el gato, la gata). Spanish, Italian and Portuguese frequently use -o for masculine nouns and -a for feminine nouns; however there are many exceptions to this paradigm. Nouns of Greek origin which end in -ma or -ta are masculine; so system is el sistema in Spanish and planet is o planeta in Portuguese. Some other Greek nouns ending in -a are masculine as well. It is often confusing to visitors to Italy to find men named Andrea, Luca, and Nicola; however, these names derive from the historical Greek names Ανδρεας (Andreas), Λουκάς (Loukas), and Νικολαος (Nikolaos). “The hand” is feminine in all three languages (la mano in Spanish and Italian and a mão in Portuguese) and many other Portuguese words which end in -ão are feminine, such as a nação (the nation).

It is therefore impossible to establish the gender of a noun using a simple -o vs. -a criterion, especially considering that there are many nouns which end in consonants or in other vowels: -e can indicate a masculine noun such as il cuore (heart) or a feminine one such la decisione (decision) in Italian. “Crisis” – another word of Greek origin – is feminine across the board despite the fact that it ends with a different letter in each of the three languages: a crise in Portuguse, la crisi in Italian, and la crisis in Spanish.

“The crisis” is la crise In French, falling into the typical French paradigm wherein masculine nouns end in a consonant while feminine nouns end in -e. Thus a male cat is le chat while a female one is la chatte; however exceptions – such as la mer and l’homme – abound.

Gender, therefore, is a fundamental characteristic of a noun which may or may not be deducible from the noun’s ending; it is more properly understood through an etymological study of a word’s origin. As shown, the gender of nouns in Greek has often dictated their gender in the modern Romance languages; Latin has had an even greater influence. The nouns “hand” and “nation” are feminine in all of the Romance languages because the Latin nouns manus and natio are feminine.

Language is much more than a cold study of letters on a paper; it is an organic complex which has resulted from millennia of culture and history. The Old Man and the Sea shows us how gender opens up expressive possibilities. The brief review of nouns that we’ve gone through today should show how the student of a modern language can benefit from learning about the history behind the language he or she is studying.

What Gender Is The Sea?

sea waves sunrise

What gender is the sea?

In the masterful novel The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway doesn’t shy away from addressing how the Spanish language spoken by his fictional creations might mean that they see the world around them in a different light than the English-speaking author (and most of the readers of the original, untranslated work) would.

The possibilities which looking at the world through a different language can open up are immediately apparent in the book’s title. “The Old Man” has a quite clear gender – masculine – but what about “the Sea?” The boats which travel the sea are usually feminine for English speakers, and the cities that they dock in often are too. The sea, on the other hand, isn’t usually attributed a gender in the English language – we might say that the question is moot.

In Spanish, on the other hand, the question of gender is omnipresent. The sea – el mar – is masculine, meaning that the title could be perceived as a conjunction of two masculine nouns – The Old Man and El Mar. However, it is likely that Hemingway did not want his novel to be about a relationship between two masculine entities, and to this end he inserts a substantial internal soliloquy in the mind of Santiago, the Old Man:

“He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”

Through this bit of the text Hemingway helps to correct the way in which readers receive his novel, but he also illuminates us as to the possibilities which the Spanish language offers. Just by changing the article which precedes mar, a speaker of Spanish can indicate a feminine or a masculine perception of the sea.

Spanish has a number of “ambiguous” nouns whose gender may depend on desired connotation, usage, or regional differences. The Catalan language demonstrates the same phenomenon, and allows for both el mar and la mar. In Italian (including all Italian dialects) and Portuguese, the sea is strictly masculine: il mare (Sicilian: u mari, Venetian: el mar, Neapolitan: ‘o mare, Sardinian: su mari, Corsican: u mare) and o mar (the same for Galician); however in French and Romanian it is feminine: la mer and la mare.

What gender is the sea in your mind?